The Surprising Backbone of the Internet of Things

1 year ago

The advanced wireless transmissions (whatever 5G turns out to be) that will be central to our shared digital future, you need access to fiber optic cables at frequent geographic intervals. That fiber, in turn, needs to be “dark” — meaning that it’s unlit by lasers and is just a passive transmission medium that can be traversed by a tsunami of 5G data. And access to that dark fiber needs to be available at a reasonable price.

When that reasonably priced dark fiber is connected to a pole, you can hang wireless transmission boxes off that pole. And if those poles are spaced no more than 200 meters apart, you can treat them as “microsites:” places for facilitating very advanced, high-capacity wireless services covering sidewalks, homes, and businesses.

The ideal pole will be like an electrical outlet in a home: available at a standard, reasonable price to any wireless carrier wanting to connect; connected to a standard wire (in the pole context, dark fiber); and incorruptible. No one—no vendor of devices or extension cords—should get better access to that outlet than anyone else, or be able to slow down someone else’s arrival on that pole. So, poles could be extremely useful.

But not all poles are the same. I’ve recently written about telephone poles (or utility poles) as places of high drama and conflict. There are special fights that go on there that are inherently unfriendly to cities, competition, and innovation. These fights are made possible by a murky regulatory setting that is easily used by incumbent telecom companies with a deep and utterly rational interest in maintaining the status quo. Go into a meeting about telephone poles as a city and you’ll feel like you were the last one to come to the party: all the private guys in the room have gained control and can easily outmaneuver you.

Streetlights and traffic signal poles are different. They’re part of the public right of way; they’re assets that are often owned and maintained by cities themselves, or by the local power company. With streetlights and signal poles, a city stands a chance of pushing along a competitive and innovative world of Internet of Things and sensors and data transmission, as long as it acts decisively to open those street lights and signal poles on a standard technical basis — again, like an electrical outlet.
Here are the three world-shaking steps

Santa Monica recently took. First, Santa Monica already had dark fiber available to its streetlights and traffic signal poles because of its 100 gigabit CityNet network. As such, the city could make sure that all of these connections were working well and were reasonably priced.

Second, Santa Monica controls most of its streetlights. Southern California Edison recently ran a 30-month program aimed at selling those streetlights to California cities. It was a win-win move: SCE wanted to gradually get out of the light- and power-distribution business, and cities that bought these streetlights could replace traditional streetlights with LED bulbs. LED: lower energy use; lower maintenance costs. (The SCE program ended last summer.)

But the third step was the charm: This past summer, Santa Monica adopted an ordinance requiring that wireless carriers get access to Santa Monica’s streetlights and traffic signal poles only on a neutral basis. It also sets design requirements for these rights-of-way assets, emphasizing the need for nice-looking poles that conceal gear. But the important thing is that carriers will not be able, in the words of former Santa Monica CIO Jory Wolf, to “delay or preclude” competition. The desired result: no one can lock up these poles.


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